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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Not a product manager in sight...

I've had the good fortune to work at companies that, at least over time, have acknowledged the importance of product management in developing great products. In fact, most folks at big shops would have difficulty imagining releasing software without a PM on board. It therefore strikes me as extremely odd to come across product companies with hundreds of employees (or more) that haven't yet adopted product management as a role in their product development process. I've witnessed this phenomenon but had never thought that deeply about how it happens. During a very enlightening conversation at the Product Management Festival in Zurich in September with Siobhan Maughan, of IntegratedThinking, she articulated very concisely what is probably the canonical evolution of small but quickly growing companies that finds them waking up one day with complex, successful products (or even portfolios) but no product managers. I'd like to elaborate on the few sentences she shared.

To understand this evolution, we have to go back on these companies' timelines to the earliest, exciting days when the combination of a great idea, a bit of funding and big dreams was enough to keep a small team working too many hours to get V1 out the door. At this stage in most companies, there's a visionary leader who understands the market and has a vision for addressing its problems. Although this person rarely considers herself a product manager, that is exactly the role she fulfills. Via personal experience or an innovative vision, this person articulates the requirements and works with development and others to define the solution. She drives validation with stakeholders and helps development adjust the features as necessary. Part of the reason this person doesn't consider herself a product manager is that she is wearing a multitude of other "hats": CEO, marketer, head of sales, HR etc.

Now let's fast forward a couple of years. If the fledgling enterprise has survived, we can assume V1 made it out the door (almost) on time and with lots of elbow grease and a few apologies here and there, led to a much better V2. The visionary leader from the early days is now operating as a proper CEO, pulled in a million different directions as she participates in strategic sales calls, lobbies banks for bigger lines of credit and ponders leases on yet more office space. The head of development, who was there from the beginning, has taken over most of the work of driving engineering and gathering requirements. Because there is such a long list of features that were cut from earlier releases and so many urgent requests from important customers and from sales people frantically trying to close deals, the development team starts to get out of touch with the market and spends less (if any) time proactively talking to customers. Throw in personnel changes in a couple of key positions and you can quickly end up with a development organization that is struggling to keep its head above water, completely in reactive mode relative to customers and dangerously out of touch with non-technical trends in the market. As sales level off and competition increases, the company starts to ponder how it can make its product more compelling. Sooner or later, someone suggests introducing a product management team and a significant cultural and procedural shift gets painfully underway.

It would seem that the simplest way to avoid this problem is to include a product management function from the get-go. I've read totally divergent perceptions about how common that practice is. One post I read recently implied that hiring a product manager is typically the first thing startups do. This idea runs contrary to my personal experience. More often than not, I see small groups of bright people overlook the fact that converting an idea into a shipping product is a skill set that cannot be developed from scratch in a few months. The startups I see have people filling the roles of visionary, business guy, technical guy and eventually marketing guy, completely overlooking the role of product manager. In my opinion, this can be an expensive or even fatal mistake.  (I've witnessed some pretty expensive "rookie errors" first-hand).

What is your experience? Have you been surprised by product companies with no product managers? What do you think the role of product management is in startups?

Next Post: A New Definition of Product Management

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